September 18, 2014

Autonomy-support in the classroom

George, a high school teacher, looked into the classroom of his colleague Bill and saw, to his amazement, that the students of the class, which had a reputation of being a very difficult class, were quietly working. At lunch break he asked Bill with a surprized smile: "How did you get them to do that, man? I get nothing but trouble from this class. I see no other solution than to get really tough with them. That'll teach them!" Bill smiled and then explained how he used the principle of autonomy-support in his classroom and he said this worked rather well. He explained that this meant, among other things, to provide many choices for students, taking students' feelings and opinions quite seriously, and avoiding controlling language. When he heard that, George said: "That sounds rather naive of you. If you do that they will walk right over you!"

 What is autonomy-support? In this brief video (based on Deci & Ryan, 2002) I wrote about four common but ineffective approaches to improve education: (1) implementing stringent new testing programs, (2) giving large amounts of homework, (3) putting much emphasis on rewards, punishments, and controls, and (4) using controlling and pressuring language. The autonomy-supportive approach to teaching is used less frequently but more effective. It consists of the following elements: (1) provide choice, (2) encourage students' experimentation and self-initiation, (3) foster students' willingness to take on challenges, explore new ideas and persist at difficult activities, (4) offer optimal challenges (neither too difficult, nor too easy), (5) provide feedback that is not evaluative of the person, (6) give meaningful rationales for requested behavior, (7) acknowledge feelings, and (8) set up cooperative learning opportunities.

Johnmarshall Reeve and his colleagues have done much research into the effects of autonomy-support in schools. He has also done 12 large-scale interventions (see Reeve & Su, 2014) in schools in which teachers have been taught the autonomy-supportive teaching approach. What is interesting is that teachers at first tend to react in a skeptical manner. They tend to say that they feel that the approach is not realistic and that it seems very hard for them to apply it. During the intervention they learn about the approach (for example about how you can offer structure while supporting autonomy) and they gather some experience with this way of working. At the end of the program they usually say that the approach is actually realistic and, in fact, is easier to apply than more stringent and controlling approach.

This was what I was reminded was when I heard about the conversation between George and Bill. Although George witnessed first hand how Bill's class was working quietly he nevertheless was skeptical when he heard how Bill worked and he called this approach naive...  

It would be a good thing if more teachers would get the opportunity to learn about autonomy-supportive teaching and if they could experiment with it. Once they find out how it works and how it impacts students they may start to appreciate it and use it more to their own benefit and to that of their students.

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